Alex Stephenson explains what Trump hopes to achieve with his fresh take on US foreign policy.
That the Trump presidency could be catastrophic for the world is self-evident. In his dealings with the EU, Russia and China, Trump is making a huge gamble. There is potential for massive reward, but it seems to be Trump, and the plutocracy he’s building around himself, who will benefit.
So far, Trump’s attitude to his role of President has varied from nonchalance to disdain to borderline insanity. Trump’s main outlet for communication has been Twitter, giving him the almost unlimited power to devalue companies by millions or carry out vendettas against celebrities. Trump’s staff have not stopped him from tweeting, so it would seem this mode of communication is here to stay. But before we can consider what this presentation may mean – if, in fact, it means anything – let us consider what Trump may be hoping to achieve.
Trump has explicitly set out with one goal: ‘Make America Great Again’. If such narcissism wasn’t enough, I suspect Trump also wants to confirm what he desperately wants to be true: that he is the ‘master of the deal’. No office comes with more power than the Oval Office. So, with the aim of ‘restoring’ US hegemony, we can expect to see an exorbitant amount of deal making.
There are three areas where we can expect Trump to take a drastically different tone to past presidents: the EU, China and Russia. The EU represents some of America’s most important allies, but Trump is keen to see it break up. China is not yet America’s equal on the world stage, but it will be soon: Trump has already caused concern by threatening trade wars and challenging the One China policy. Russia is the most worrying case. Trump seems to have unhealthily close ties to Russia: on February 13th his National Security Advisor – one of the most powerful people in America with access to highly classified intelligence – was forced to resign because of his close ties to Russia. This could well be just the tip of the iceberg.
With the lofty aspiration of significantly changing the global system, Trump is betting big and taking an approach to diplomacy hitherto unheard of for the world’s superpower: insanity. Trump has so far acted as a renegade, and this has had some effect. In the EU, Trump has been promising Britain favourable trade deals whilst openly insulting Angela Merkel and vying for the breakup of the Union. His contradictory comments regarding NATO also break with tradition, undermining European military integration at a time when Baltic countries are feeling far from secure. Not having America as the driving force behind NATO may expose fault lines in the European alliance at a time when France and Germany are contending both with Brexit and their own national elections.
Trump has similarly shown he’s prepared to rock the boat with China, however his erratic style will likely be intended to intimidate rather than weaken. China, despite its size, is still a relatively untested power and as it grows the domestic pressures will increase – whether that be due to economic or political concerns, or to civil rights movements. Trump may seek to exploit this uncertainty by unpredictably lashing out – threatening trade wars, bending the One China policy or accentuating the South China Sea issue one week and sending warm letters to the President the next. As Trump’s actions leave China mired in international dilemmas and conflicts the rest of the West may find themselves faced with a stark choice: America or China. Having not been tested in recent years against a stronger external force, China may choose to wait and find out how Trump’s domestic and Western developments turn out before looking for confrontation.
Trump may see strengthening relations with Russia as mutually beneficial, with the EU a threat to US hegemony (in Trump’s mind) and China a rising star. By proclaiming Putin as a ‘great guy’, Trump gains a lukewarm ally prepared to repeatedly undermine and threaten Europe yet isn’t in a position to challenge US dominance. Putin sees a return of a Russian dominated Eastern Europe and – with such unscrupulous and corrupt figures as Rex Tillerson and Carter Page dominating Trump’s team – a likely loosening of sanctions. Trump’s “take the oil” attitude to the Middle East is intolerant at best, and a partnership with Russia could see the US end its proxy conflicts in the region, which have proved to be such a drain on resources, and gain an ally who has proved they are prepared to get heavily involved. Finally, improved US-Russian relations would see the US more strategically positioned to curtail Chinese hegemony in Central Asia and the Far East. Whether this will actually occur is unlikely: Russia has no interest in provoking China, it’s far more economically and militarily powerful neighbour. That said, provided Trump successfully alters the Iran agreement that Russia was so heavily involved in, the following four years may see a thaw in relations, with Trump viewing Russia as it appears on paper: a country with nearly fifteen times less GDP than the US and a substandard military. Whether it is America’s interest to have closer ties with such a corrupt dictator as Putin is another question.
Of course, much of this hinges on domestic politics and Trump may find that with the media, huge swathes of the population and foreign powers against him, he may be severely more constrained than he imagined when he was running for office. And yet, Sean’s Spicer’s farcical lies regarding the viewing numbers of Trump’s inauguration may render US voters unable to decipher the ‘doublespeak’, electing to either switch off altogether or settle for some half truth. Ultimately, a return to the hegemony the US once wielded will not be attainable if the world perceives Trump as a hard man who simply wants success. He must be perceived as irrational.
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